With the Legislature gearing up for another 60-day sprint, local lawmakers are aiming to squeeze lots of work into a short session.
The session, though brief, has major implications for school budgets, the price of energy, local construction projects and rural land development.
And now that Democrats control both chambers for the first time since 2012, the votes of two Southwest Washington lawmakers — Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) and Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview) — could prove pivotal on big-ticket legislation.
Following Manka Dhingra’s (D-Redmond) victory in last fall’s special election for the 45th District, Democrats have a one-vote majority in the Senate and a two-vote majority in the House.
The Legislature has a big to-do list: It must finish a plan to fully fund the cost of K-12 education, address rural water rights and pass a stalled $4 billion capital budget.
Gov. Jay Inslee has already proposed a carbon tax in his supplemental budget as a way to raise $950 million needed to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, the one mandating full funding of basic education.
Inslee wants to pull the sum from the state’s budget reserves in order to fully fund the cost of teacher salaries by a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline — then backfill the withdrawal with a tax on carbon pollution.
A carbon tax could have a huge impact on Cowlitz County and its array of industrial businesses that rely on cheap energy to export products. Any significant increase in the price of power could threaten companies that operate on thin margins and compete in the global economy.
While they acknowledge the threat of man-made climate change, both Blake and Takko have said they’re not interested in supporting a carbon-reduction plan that could kill jobs in the 19th District. But they could still come under heavy pressure from their party to vote for a carbon bill because they represent the type of moderate Democrats that their more liberal Puget Sound colleagues need to win over.
Blake said he doesn’t see enough votes in either chamber for a carbon tax in the short session, but added that he’s willing to examine a range of proposals.
“I just don’t think there are 50 votes in the House or 25 in the Senate to get it done,” he said Thursday in an interview. “With that said, both houses still have an obligation to take a look at (a carbon bill) and evaluate it.”
Inslee will unveil his carbon tax plan Tuesday in his State-of-the-State speech. Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) are crafting their own respective proposals.
Takko said he’s also doubtful that a carbon tax bill can win the necessary votes but he acknowledged that could change if momentum starts to build for a more severe voter-approved carbon tax initiative.
“If there’s any idea that really starts gaining some steam and it’s way out there, I could see us putting something out that’s a bit more moderate,” Takko told The Daily News Friday.
Representatives from the Quinault Indian Nation and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington recently announced they were joining the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, an environmental group that plans to collect the nearly 260,000 signatures necessary to put a carbon tax initiative on the ballot in November.
The details of the carbon initiative could light a fire under lawmakers in the same way the prospect of a voter-approved paid family leave law motivated lawmakers to pass their own family leave bill last summer.
Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington), the House majority leader, cautioned that although Democrats control slim majorities in the House and Senate, any carbon legislation likely needs to be bipartisan in order to reach Inslee’s desk.
“We would expect that if there were a carbon tax proposal, the only way it would make it through the process is if there were bipartisan votes for that proposal,” he said in an interview.
Capital budget and Hirst
Takko said his top priority headed into the short session is unlocking the state’s $4 billion capital budget. The Senate’s budget contains more than $60 million in funding for shovel-ready construction projects in the 19th Legislative District, including $1 million for the Tam O’Shanter Athletic Arena in Kelso and nearly $300,000 for R.A. Long Park in Longview.
But the budget has been stalled since August, when Senate Republicans linked its passage to delivering a solution to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling. That decision requires counties to establish stricter regulations for drilling small water wells due to concern that they threaten stream flows and sap water from tribes and other groups.
Senate Republicans have proposed a law that would essentially negate the court’s ruling, but that approach appears to be a non-starter in the House.
As chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Blake has played a crucial role in bridging the divide between rural land developers and environmentalists.
Blake and Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee) proposed an amendment to a Senate bill over the summer that would allow rural property owners to drill new wells while charging new drilling fees to raise money for stream-enhancement projects.
The idea appeared palatable in both chambers, but the measure never came up for a vote in the House.
“(Blake’s) voice is very influential given the fact that he’s a moderate Democrat who represents the interests of his district in a community that’s more moderate than, say, the Puget Sound region,” said Sullivan, the majority leader.
Blake couldn’t point to specific sticking points in negotiations, but he’s optimistic a solution will emerge soon.
“I’m expecting something to break loose this weekend,” he said Thursday. “There’s broad agreement that we want folks to be able to access property and build, and I think there’s widespread agreement that restoring stream flows is important.”
Blake said he’s also working to resolve a conflict between county governments and efforts to protect the marbled murrelet, a seabird that has been listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1992.
In December, the state began efforts to form a long-term plan to protect the seabirds, which could potentially involve protecting thousands of acres of timber from logging.
The marbled murrelet has been protected under an “interim” plan since 1997, and about 583,000 acres of state forests are currently protected for the seabirds. That number would swell to 620,000 acres under a long-term plan outlined recently by the state Board of Natural Resources.
The state manages thousands of acres of timberland in Pacific County and Wahkiakum County, and state timber sales make up a large share of the county government’s revenue.
“It’s my hope that we can keep these counties whole,” Blake said.
Blake has co-sponsored a bill with fellow 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) that would require a task force to study the economic impact of its proposed marbled murrelet conservation program.
Back on defense
With Democrats back in the majority in both chambers after five years, Walsh said he’s expecting to play plenty of defense during the short session.
“They’re going to be letting their freak flags fly and we’re probably going to see some bills that have been pent up for a long time, and a lot of it’s going to be playing hockey goalie on some of that stuff,” he said.
But the first-term lawmaker also pre-filed a handful of bills that could gain some traction.
Walsh is proposing a bill that would limit Atlantic salmon fish farms in the state after a broken net allowed more than 160,000 farmed fish into the waters surrounding San Juan Islands.
“That’s already had a good effect and it hasn’t even had a hearing yet,” he said in an interview Friday.
Walsh also pre-filed a bill that would redirect one-third of the state’s marijuana sales tax revenue to the county level. The money would be earmarked to pay public defenders for low-income defendants — a cost that has taken an increasing toll on county and city governments.
“That was in response to local governments’ cries for help,” he said. “The state has really reneged on its portion of funding public defenders.”
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing Monday in the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.